When he first met Diana Vreeland in the offices of Harper’s Bazaar, Richard Avedon was an eager young photographer whom she haphazardly referred to as “Aberdeen.” He’d only been shooting in New York a couple of years when was hired by Harper’s to create fashion portfolios under Mrs. Vreeland’s watchful eye. As fashion editor, she had revamped the pages of Harper’s to inspire and beguile in a time of post-war bleakness. Harper’s was the ideal outlet, and Mrs. Vreeland the ideal partner, for Avedon to pioneer and define his groundbreaking style.
For two decades the pair collaborated at Harper’s, bringing a naturalness and ease to fashion spreads while infusing them with a never-before-seen movement, vitality and narrative. Models went from being mere clothes hangers to leaping over puddles, playing roulette or starring in their own romantic stories. "I began to photograph my enthusiasms,” he has said, “I liked girls who were full of imagination and fun, and I loved watching them move.” Avedon and Mrs. Vreeland shot everyone from China Machado to Audrey Hepburn, and he felt that they had an unspoken understanding of how things should look on the page — or nearly unspoken. For a shoot with Dovima, in Egypt, her only direction was to “think of Cleopatra walking those roofs with all these old people!” The resulting images of Dovima with the elephants may be the most recognizable of his career. When she entrusted him with the task of shooting the first photographs of the Kennedy Family at the White House, Mrs. Vreeland instructed that Avedon “Just get that voice!” Of course, Mrs. Vreeland meant the unique and soft voice of her friend Jacqueline, not the President’s famous New England inflection.
Avedon was the only photographer that Mrs. Vreeland brought to Vogue when she became Editor-in-Chief, and their collaboration continued to chart new territory. The two were kindred spirits — neither believed in conforming to the status quo. At Vogue in the ‘60s and ‘70s they redefined beauty and style in step with the revolutionary times. Together they sought out unconventional beauties like Veruschka, Twiggy and Penelope Tree; their images of Barbara Streisand and Angelica Huston, among others, thrust the young women into the limelight overnight; and they pioneered the energetic, girl-next-door American look with the likes of Lauren Hutton.
At her memorial service Avedon gave a moving speech that revealed the high regard he held her in. “Diana lived for imagination ruled by discipline, and created a totally new profession,” he said. He viewed her as the defining fashion editor and together they created new styles of fashion photography. And later, thinking back to the day they met, Avedon recalls his initial balk: “I went back to Carmel Snow and said ‘I can't work with that woman. She calls me Aberdeen.' And Carmel Snow said, 'You're going to work with her.' And I did, to my enormous benefit, for almost 40 years."
Archival Image, Diana Vreeland, Dovima and Richard Avedon, 1955.
Via The Nifty Fifties